Mental health and the newsroom

How journalists cope with stress and stigma

Ten years ago, then-Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong was sent to cover the Dawson College shooting in Quebec. After her controversial story was published, she received hate mail, death threats and a rebuke from her employer.

“We don’t go into journalism to win Miss Congeniality, so I thought I was going to be OK,” she said.

However, Wong was far from OK. She wasn’t eating or sleeping properly. She cried all the time and suffered from memory loss. The Globe and Mail published 15 of the hundreds of letters to the editor it received complaining about her story, one of them from then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. She felt abandoned by her own newspaper.

“I couldn’t have a mental illness because I’m strong; I am tough,” she said. “But I did.”

Wong went on to write a book about her journey through depression — Out of the Blue, A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness. She spoke about her experiences during a panel discussion called Mental Health & the Newsroom, held Oct. 22 at Centennial College’s Story Arts Centre in East York.

Fellow panelists included Cliff Lonsdale, journalism professor and president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma; Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and University of Toronto professor; and journalist Scott Simmie, who acted as moderator.

The two-hour discussion, co-hosted by the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Canadian Media Guild, focused on how journalists are affected by their environment and how they cope.

Simmie said he experienced an episode of mania in China after being demoted from his post as CBC’s Moscow bureau producer. While in a delusional state, he spent most of his money on antique furniture and believed he was a powerful salesperson.

When he returned to work at CBC after a period of time on disability, he no longer felt at home.

“I returned to a very different place… When I would walk down the hallway, people would turn their heads,” he said. “They would look at the floor. They would refuse to look at me.”

Statistics show that one in five Canadians will have mental health issues in their lifetime. The panelists agreed that as stress in the workplace escalates, an open dialogue about mental health needs to occur.

“When you think about it, it’s not really one in five. It’s all of us,” Lonsdale said.

Feinstein, who has conducted extensive research into how covering conflict affects journalists, believes that education about mental health takes away the stigma. Breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions helps show people they can live healthy lives, even while dealing with mental illness, he said. It also makes people more likely to seek treatment.

“When people understand what’s going on,” Feinstein said, “they feel empowered to do something about it.”